The story told in a song is moved along in part by the individual song sections and how they relate to each other. When the same thing is repeated over and over again, listeners lose interest. So we use contrast—a difference between two song sections—to make sure they stick around.
In pop music, contrast is achieved through changes in melody, harmony, rhythm, and increasingly, studio production techniques. When executed properly, the result of contrast is a greater sense of drama and eventual resolution—two key structures in all storytelling.
Going from verse to chorus, the change in structure needs to be different enough to intrigue us, but not so dissimilar that we feel lost. This balance can be tricky, but it's almost always necessary for a pop song to be memorable. To reflect this, here are five music production tips—ways to use contrast effectively between verse and chorus. While aimed at pop music, most tips can be applied to all genres.
1. Small vs. large instrumentation
As vocal content changes from verse to chorus, so should the instrumentation that supports it. This change can be subtle, like the addition of a new rhythmic groove. Or it can be extreme and over-the-top, making use of all the bells and whistles in your producer toolkit. The goal here is to build momentum and enhance song energy, so it's worth exploring just how far you can push it in your song. Generally speaking, choruses have at least as many, if not more instruments than the the verse.
A good reference is “May I Have This Dance” by Francis and The Lights featuring Chance the Rapper. The first verse instrumentation features no more than a simple tom beat and some synth chords. These elements are enhanced for the chorus. The beat gets a dose of afrobeat percussion and the synth attack is turned way up so the chords ebb and flow along with the start-stop drum rhythm. When the song gets quiet again in the following verse, the magnitude of the chorus settles in and makes you look forward to the next one.
Pulling this song up on a spectrogram reveals the increase in frequency content from from verse to chorus. Many pop songs follow a similar structure, so keep this image in mind when considering instrumentation choices for the chorus.
In terms of instrumentation, it is possible for a chorus to be too different from the verse. If a verse is very short and simple and the chorus chucks a whole drum kit at you, listeners will run for cover. In these cases, it might be best to consider inserting a pre-chorus to ease the transition from verse to chorus.
2. Mono verse to stereo chorus
This same mindset can be applied to vocal production. To create a sense of contrast, keep vocals in mono for the verse, and double or triple them up for the chorus.
Additional vocal takes can be recorded manually and panned wide to fill out the stereo field or simulated digitally with plug-ins like Vocal Doubler. Slight time and pitch discrepancies between vocal layers will enhance the doubling effect and a bright EQ or saturation effect will push the excitement even further. Explore vocal panning scenarios using Neutron 2’s Visual Mixer.
Modern pop vocals have a lot of processing, so don’t shy away from pitch-based effects that make the voice sound unnatural. James Blake, Frank Ocean, and FKA Twigs are among a group of artists happy to sound like aliens, as long as it suits the song and improves their vocal expression.
To better understand the mono verse-stereo chorus relationship, listen to Lorde’s “Homemade Dynamite” with headphones. During the verse and pre-chorus, her vocals are panned closer to the center and heard from the middle of your head. In the chorus, however, her vocals spread out to form a much wider sonic image, and they are heard separately by your left and right ear. This is the desired effect for this vocal technique.
3. Vocal rhythm and pitch
In the two examples covered so far, we’ve looked at ways to differentiate a chorus from a verse by increasing instrumental and spatial activity. It’s fair to assume that vocal rhythm should follow the same pattern and become more animated too. But take a listen through your favourite pop jams and you’ll notice that most of the time, vocal rhythms in a chorus are pared-down.
Long, held-out notes draw more emotion out of words than shorter notes, and a chorus is where the most emotive lyrics are expressed, specifically the song title. To bring more attention to the chorus, vocal melodies are sung higher in pitch than the verse. The human voice generates more harmonics in it’s upper range, making for a brighter and cleaner sound. These concepts are executed to a tee on Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.”
The short, quick vocal rhythms in the verse create an unsettled feeling that points toward a resolution eventually happening. We get our answer in the chorus: simple, drawn-out vocals that reach upward in pitch.
Going back and forth between these two states (less vs. more predictable) is what keeps a pop song interesting for three to four minutes. If your choruses aren’t hitting that high emotional point, consider vocal rhythms and pitch. Elongated, upper register notes may resolve the issue.
4. Lyric content
Verse lyrics are descriptive and tell a story, whereas chorus lyrics are purely emotive. In fact, some of the most effective choruses don’t really say anything at all—wordless “na na nas” and “who-oh-ohs” that cut to the core of basic, but universal feelings of angst, courage, joy, and so on.
A chorus needs to be simple. It is pop music after all, and people of all ages and backgrounds listen to it. Pop is played in grocery stores, malls, restaurants, parks, and sports stadiums. If you try to say too much, the emotional message will not carry. Whittle chorus lyrics down to basic words, phrases, or even syllables.
Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” captures the story-emotion rollercoaster between verse and choruses very well. The verse lyrics deal with the transition from childhood innocence to adulthood. They start on a somber tone (“something filled up my heart with nothing”) and end with a sense of hope (“With my lightning bolts a glowing I can see where I am go-going”). This theme of healing is captured in the wordless chorus of uplifting chants. The message is easy to sing along to. Keep this in mind as you write lyrics.
5. Singing style
A rapped verse and sung chorus is one of the most noticeable, but effective ways to create contrast between the two song sections. Artists like Drake, Young Thug, and Nicki Minaj regularly jump between different singing styles over the course a single song. Paired with some the tips we’ve seen so far, this can dramatically change song mood.
If you are a singer who doesn’t rap, or vice-versa, collaborate with someone who does. Pop music has caught onto the success of DJ Khaled posse cuts, and as of late, multi-artist collaborations represent more than a third of hit songs in the US.
For inspiration, listen to these collaborations featuring at least two vocalists. The division between verse and chorus is clear-as-day.
“Nothin’ On You” by Bruno Mars and B.O.B.
“1-800-273-8255” by Logic, Alessia Cara, and Khalid
“See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth
“Stan” by Eminem and Dido
Most listeners have a lot to say about songs they like, even if it’s not in musical or technical terms. But when listeners are bored with a song, they have a harder time expressing why—something just isn’t there. If all the “right” song elements are already in place, I wager they are not hearing a strong enough sense of contrast.
Now that you know what to listen for, it may surprise you just how often these five contrast principles are employed. Use them in future music production sessions and you will greatly improve the quality of your songwriting.